The presidential election that took place in 1960 was an interesting one. Newcomer, John F. Kennedy verses the Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. It was experimental with its trail of televised debates. It also marked the second in which a catholic had run for president and more importantly the first in which a catholic attained victory.
John F. Kennedy, of Irish decent, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29,1917. He entered the Navy, after graduation from Harvard in 1940. In 1946, home from World War II, Kennedy became a Democratic Congressman and in 1953, he joined the Senate. A “privileged aristocrat,” his father’s wealth and influence contributed largely to Kennedy’s political career. 1 John’s father, Joseph Kennedy was a self-made millionaire. “In Joseph’s political career, he accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, as the chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission. Joseph was also chairman of the Maritime Commission and from 1937- 1940, he was ambassador to Great Britain.” 2 John’s mother, Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy, was daughter to John F. Fitzgerald, Mayor of Boston. John’s paternal grandfather, Patrick J. Kennedy, had served in the Massachusetts Senate.
Richard Milhouse Nixon was born of a Quaker family on January 9,1913 in Yorba Linda, California. He graduated second in his class from local Whittier College in 1934 and later graduated third in his class from Duke University Law School. From there Nixon joined a law firm, and then briefly worked for the tire-rationing section of the Office of Price Administration, in Washington, D.C. Eight months into World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and moved to the Pacific to become a supply officer. 3 Soon after his return home from World War II he entered politics as a Republican Anti-Communist. Nixon won the race for California Congressman over Democrat Jerry Voorhis. He became a junior member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1950, at the age of thirty-five, Nixon was a “national figure,” and again experienced victory in his race for senator.4 After only a year and a half as Senator, he was selected by the Republican National Convention as vice presidential running mate to Eisenhower, and.served two terms as Vice President.
In the election of 1960, many Democratic leaders entered the race for their party, because of increased majorities in the Senate (64 Democratic seats to 32 Republican seats) and House (283 Democratic seats to 153 Republican seats). However, “John F. Kennedy’s impressive performance and reelection as Senator of Massachusetts in 1958, made him the Democratic front-runner.” 5 Other Democratic candidates were Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Senator Stewart Symington of Missouri, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, and Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy had faced obstacles in challenging his opponents, all of who were more powerful than he, and had “longer, more distinguished political careers.”6Another factor against Kennedy was his Roman Catholic background, but his “primary victory in overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia helped to rebut the claim that a Catholic could not win.” 7 Only once had a Catholic ever been nominated, Governor Al Smith of New York, in 1928, but Smith was easily defeated. Kennedy’s response to questions about his religion was, “Nobody asked if I was Catholic when I joined the United States Navy…Nobody asked my brother if he was Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber to fly his last mission.” Although proud of his religion, he would not be influenced by Catholic doctrine in his decisions as president. 8
“On the Republican ballot was Richard Milhouse Nixon, vice president to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York also ran on the Republican ticket. Although, Rockefeller influenced the party platform by calling for stronger defense programs, faster buildup of missiles, reinforced civil rights measures, and a governmental boost to the economy, proposals of which Nixon later accepted. Rockefeller withdrew, not having much of a chance against Nixon.” 9Nixon had the power to be a great president even though he did not appear that way. Even with Nixon’s experience as the vice president, I guess that was not enough for the American voters.
The nomination battle ended leaving two influential men standing, Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Milhouse Nixon. Moss says of their similarities, “ Nixon was a moderate conservative with liberal tendencies. Kennedy was a moderate liberal with conservative tendencies. Both were cold warriors. Both accepted the basic structure of the New Deal welfare state. Both advocated civil rights and believed in strong presidency. Both were young men, Nixon, forty-seven and Kennedy, forty-three.” 10
Kennedy asked his last minute competition, Lyndon Johnson, who had entered the race as Democrat after the primaries to be his running mate, disregarding the “high level of animosity between them.” 11“Kennedy needed Johnson to obtain Texas and hold the South, in order to defeat Nixon in the November election.” 12His platform was that of the “New Frontier,” as promised by Kennedy, “with its unknown opportunities and perils…It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people but what I intend to ask of them.” 13 Other aspects of the Democratic platform included an interest in civil rights and a promise of “strong, presidential leadership.” 14 The 160 Democratic Platform was dubbed “The rights of Man.” 15
“Nixon named Henry Cabot Lodge, ambassador to the United Nations and former Massachusetts Senator, as his Vice Presidential pick, after consultation with Republican, party leaders.” This was a choice made with consideration of foreign affairs in mind. The theme of the platform, as stated by Nixon was, “the race for survival,” the development of a strategy for international peace and freedom. 16
Many assumed that Nixon would easily defeat Kennedy. However, Kennedy’s popularity increased after the candidates participated in four nationally televised debates. The debates, which took, place between September 26 and October 21, were the first presidential debates to be broadcast on television. The first debate that took place on September 26 brought the largest audience, estimated at 75 million viewers in 30 million homes. Kennedy “dominated the event,” by acting “charismatic, smiling and spewing facts like a machine gun. 17 When the questions came Kennedy was ready for them. He replied to the questions of his experience and qualifications of office, ‘by pointing out that his experience in government was equal to length to that of Nixons making him equally qualified.” Kennedy proposed to the viewers, “that the United States as a country, was not living up to its full potential, and that it was time to do something about it.” 18
Nixon had refused to wear makeup, appearing, “haggard, almost ghostlike.” 19
In his responses, he came of as, “awkward and defensive,” struggling to “make a good impression.” 20 Nixon had a tough time answering to questions of his claims to “superior policy-handling skill,” because of President Eisenhower’s confession that he had never adopted any of Nixon’s policy proposals as vice president or advisor. 21 Although he agreed with Kennedy that the United States should be moving forward, Nixon disagreed that the country had not been productive enough, standing by Eisenhower’s growth record. Though the September 26 debate was a flop for Nixon he improved in the three that would follow, and took a “slight advantage overall,” but could not “recover from the harm of his appearance on the first debate.” 22First impressions always seem to stick with people for a while.
The issues in the debates were not well represented, and no distinctions between each parties stance on them actually stood out. Only Nixon’s claim that the Democratic platform would effect the tax payer’s current rate by an increase of $18 billion, while Republicans spending increase if elected, would be under $5 billion. 23In reference to the debates, they were “essentially popularity contests, whose outcomes depended on the cosmetic factors of personality and appearance.” 24
Although it had not played a role in the televised debates, in 1960, foreign policy was an influential issue of debate, as it had been in 1952 and 1956. Nikita Khruschev, first secretary of the Communist party appeared at the United Nations in New York for a number of weeks during the campaign. She served as a “constant reminder of the U-2 incident, the abortive summit meeting, and the canceled visit to Japan.” 25 At a Moscow press conference, Khruschev had referred to Eisenhower as “spineless,” and held him responsible for “deliberately wrecking the summit meeting.” 26 Khruschev had also demanded a new summit conference and outwardly opted to meet with a Democratic President. Eisenhower also lost points with the Soviets when his invitation to visit Japan was withdrawn by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi feared for Eisenhower’s safety after, “a crowd of ten thousand chanting students in Tokyo blocked the motorcade of presidential advance man James Hagerty outside the airport, forcing the Japanese government to rescue him from the mob by helicopter.” 27 Upon his return to the U.S., Eisenhower had explained to the American people that the Communists had gone to “great lengths and expenses to create disorders in Tokyo.” In reference to Eisenhower’s statement, Divine points out that, “Despite this attempt to blame the Soviets, the administration could not hide the stunning blow to American pride.” 28
The final days leading up to Election Day were eventful ones. Kennedy became increasingly popular due to his new ideas, as Kennedy states, “to get America moving again.” This captured the public’s attention, “a public that was enduring about joblessness in a recession and increasing in their acceptance of change. 29Kennedy’s popularity was also a result of his civil rights action, assisting Martin Luther King in his release from jail, where King more than likely would have been killed. Kennedy also promised to sign an executive order outlawing segregation in federally subsidized housing. King’s release and Kennedy’s promise brought Kennedy the winning margin in Texas and North Carolina and most of the northern black inner-city vote.Thanks to the energetic campaigning of Eisenhower in those final days, Nixon too, was well received. 30
Kennedy won with a 313-219 lead over Nixon in electoral votes, but “out of a record of 68 million votes cast, Kennedy’s margin of victory was about 118,000.” 31 Kennedy had taken 49.7% of the popular vote over Nixon’s 49.5%, a close election. Kennedy’s big wins included New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts, heavy with electoral votes, whereas Nixon’s victories in California and Ohio could not make up electorally where all of his smaller wins were lacking. 32 Republicans only gained 22 seats in the House and 2 in the Senate. The Democratic Party was popular at the time, leaving them with large majorities in the House and Senate. 33 The final outcome of the election was that, “many voters had spilt their tickets in 1960. Millions of the Republicans, many of them Catholics, voted for Kennedy. Millions of Democrats, mostly Protestants, voted for Nixon.” 34 “The 1960 campaign had broken all records for funding and distances traveled. Nixon campaigning in all fifty states, and Kennedy traveling over 100,000 miles in a family-leased jet.” It is said to be, “the toughest presidential election in modern American political history.” 35.
Through my research, I have learned that presidential elections can actually posses more interest than meets the eye. What I found most interesting was the bias of a presidential candidate due to his religion, in the case of the Election of 1960, the bias of John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. Never before this election were voters challenged with overcoming their stereotypes or could voters be given credit for basing their decision on more than a man’s religious beliefs. However, there were many voters that were influenced by this alone, to the extreme that where Democrats voted Republican. I believe that times have changed, to the point that where religion would not have that great of an impact on presidential selection. As a nation, I think that we have become more open-minded, about some matters, not all. Ignorance still lurks around every corner. I do not believe that I will ever see the day when a woman or a minority is ever elected president. People tend to vote traditionally. So that is probably why there will never be a woman or minority as President of the United States. I have also concluded that Kennedy’s good looks were in large part responsible for his victories in the televised debates. I suspect that many voters probably disregarded the issues in the campaign and voted solely on appearance in the 1960 election, a possible reason to be consistent throughout time.
Seeing that I was not alive and my parents were both under three years old I thought it would be interesting to ask my grandmother her views on the Election of 1960.
I asked her who and why she voted for. She told me that she voted for Kennedy. When I told her that many people think Kennedy won due to his good looks she said, “That is foolish and that is not why I voted for him.” She told me her reasons included he was young, he was Catholic, he was Massachusetts, he had been in politics all his life and she liked his views. One major reason she voted for him was because, “I thought Nixon could not be trusted. I could not trust him as far as I could throw him.” She believed that Kennedy was the best man for the job. When I asked her what she thought about the televised debates she said, “ There were interesting, you could see the reactions on their faces. Not like on the radio you could not see their emotions and facial expressions.”
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